Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1 (FA Cup 5th Round)

It was a great win, which saw Arsenal through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Now only Everton and two further wins lie between us and a first trophy in nine years. However, what made us even happier was this night's performance from the Gunners. We have been top of the league and thereabouts for most of the season, but we haven't played well for a long time. This is arguably the best performance since our defeat of Tottenham in the third round of the FA Cup.

Before going into the details of the team's performance, we have to give credit to Arsene Wenger. He made seven changes from the side that started in a goalless draw with Manchester United on Wednesday night. This was a huge gamble for him, which could have backfired on him if the game hadn't gone according to his gameplan. In fact, prior to the match, a section of fans accused the French man of not taking seriously the competition which appears to be our best chance of winning something this season. On paper, this team looked a weakened side with a number of regular starters rested on the bench. On the other hand, it also meant that the players who came in for them were fresh and raring to go. Unlike those fans who were unhappy with Wenger's team selection, we saw his different approach to this game from Arsenal's usual style of keeping possession and passing teams to death, which we have been increasingly weary of recently. Actually, when we saw the teamsheet, the group of quick and more direct players up front excited us.

Wenger explained his team selection as changes mostly forced by medical reasons. Fabianski came in for Szczesny as the 28-year-old is a designated Cup goalkeeper. Carl Jenkinson replaced Bacary Sagna who was tired. Mathieu Flamini, who returned from a three-match ban, replaced Jack Wilshere. The England midfielder was dropped to the bench due to a stiff back. Contrary to our expectations, Mikel Arteta retained his place in the starting line-up. Perhaps the decision was influenced by the fact that he will not play a part in Wednesday night's Champions League match against Bayern Munich through suspension. The two centre-backs also kept their places in order to provide defensive stability (that's Wenger's reasoning, but what choice do we have with Vermaelen still injured?) Nacho Monreal got the nod ahead of Kieran Gibbs, which was a little uncomfortable selection for us after the Spaniard had a torrid time against the same opponents only eight days ago. Wenger defended his selection by citing Kieran Gibbs's muscular problem as the reason. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right wing, with Lukas Podolski on the left flank and Yaya Sanogo in the lone striker role to replace Santi Cazorla, who was sick in bed on Friday, and "a bit tired" Giroud, respectively. Tomas Rosicky was rested completely, not even on the bench. According to Wenger, Bendtner is fit and sharp at the moment, but was not included in the squad.

We were not quite sure about Flamini-Arteta central midfield partnership prior to the match. Both of them sit deep and neither of them looks to get forward. The most recent example of the failure was the first half of the Southampton game. An interesting set of stats compare Premier League games with/without Arteta and Flamini together. Actually, the win ratio when the two played together is higher at 69.20%, compared with 61.5% without the two together. However, it may be worth while to note that these figures do not reflect other competitions, including the away game against Napoli, a worst example of games when the two played together. That said, the partnership worked well against this day's Liverpool side, not leaving the defence open to get exposed. In fact, leaving Wilshere on the bench might have done good on the attacking side as well because he is often a major culprit for slow, intricate passing moves.

Not conceding a first goal was key to this set-up. We had wobbly moments at the start of the game, but largely thanks to Fabianski, we survived those moments. After we had scored the first goal, we could keep it tight at the back and attack on the break, which was well suited for this set-up with the pacy three players up front. We did exactly that. Then, after we had extended our lead early in the second half, we looked comfortable with the game under control until Liverpool got one back. The Merseyside club mounted pressure afterwards, but we remained calm and saw out the game.

The media talked up late threats from a Liverpool side, but as Wenger responded to the reporters in his post-match interviews, we also had chances to make it 3-1. Santi had a golden opportunity with time and space in his hand, but somehow the Spaniard managed to smash his effort high over the bar.

The biggest talking point was arguably the referee's decisions. Liverpool should probably have been awarded another penalty when the Ox ran into Suarez, but the Uruguayan's theatrical tumble did not help one bit. Raheem Sterling was lucky to escape a red card when he pushed Howard Webb in the chest. Many agree that Gerrard was also lucky to stay on the pitch after fouling the Ox when he had already been booked. Liverpool also benefited from Howard Webb's generous treatments.

Overall, we are very happy with the Gunners' performance. Stats depict a totally different picture to our usual games. Our possession was 42.7%, with a territorial advantage of 54.3%. Arsenal made 305 passes in total, which is significantly low by their standard, with a meagre 78.4% passing success rate vis-à-vis Liverpool's 82.5%. We have to admit that the stats were not impressive, but the performance was great. Perhaps Arsenal played a different game to their accustomed style, which also pleased us. They were energetic and full of desire. They took both chances very well, which was probably the ultimate difference between the two sides that determined the result. We particularly liked the swift movement leading to the second goal, which was what we had wanted to see from an Arsenal side.

The result was massive. Not only did it give Arsenal a path to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, but also allowed us to get the disappointing week out of system and gave the team confidence and self-belief ahead of an encounter with Bayern Munich. Hopefully, the team will build on their performance of this day.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 8
Made a series of fines saves. Apart from the mistake when he came out for Gerrard's free-kick but got beaten by Agger, he was flawless. It was an impressive display, considering the difficulty of staying match-fit and sharp when he didn't get playing time for so long. It is a shame that he is set to leave the club as he reportedly turned down a new contract.

Jenkinson: 7
Despite getting beaten by Sterling a couple of times, he coped with Liverpool's attacking threats relatively well. He didn't commit himself too high on the pitch like Sagna did at Anfield, but when he joined the attack, he was quick.

Mertesacker: 7

Koscielny: 7
Made 3 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 12 clearances.

Monreal: 7
Much improved performance from the heavy defeat at Anfield. Made 4 tackles and 7 interceptions. Earned a free-kick, which eventually led to the first goal. Well disciplined after shown a yellow card so early in the game.

Flamini: 7
Provided the team with steel. Gave good protection to the back four

Arteta: 6
Made 29 passes with 72% passing success rate, surprisingly poor figures from last season's best Premier League passer.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Scored the first goal and set up the second goal, which makes 3 goals, 1 assist, and 1 penalty earned in his last 4 appearances (including 1 as a sub). He posed a constant threat to the Liverpool defence. For the first goal, he showed great composure after collecting the rebound off Gerrard. He provided an assist for Poldi's goal through a inch-perfect cut-back after beating Agger on the right flank with his pace.

Özil: 7
This game showed that when he gets runners around him, he shines. He spotted the Ox's run on the right flank and released him behind the defender with a perfectly-weighed pass. His lofted ball back into the box created a chance for the first goal by finding Sanogo at far post. He had an angled shot himself after making a run into the box, which forced a fine low stop from Brad Jones.

Podolski: 7
Scored Arsenal's second goal. He made an incisive run into the box to get in front of the defender before hammering the Ox's cut-back with his weaker right foot. Gave away a soft penalty, though. He should have known better than tackling Suarez from behind.

Sanogo: 7
Very promising performance on his first start in a competitive game as an Arsenal player. One of the many positives from this game. He was strong and quick, involved in every Arsenal attack. He chested down Özil's floated ball to control it and released a goal-bound shot, which was blocked by Gerrard only for the Ox to slot home the rebound. He certainly offers an alternative to Giroud. Bright prospect for Arsenal.


Cazorla: 6
Replaced Podolski in the 69th minute. He had a glorious chance to stretch Arsenal's lead, but he blew it. It would have killed the game without doubt.

Gibbs: 6
75th-minute substitute for the Ox. It was a strange substitution when the Ox was putting in a man-of-the-match performance. He was slotted into the left wing to support and overlap with Monreal.

Giroud: 6
Came on for Sanogo in the 88th minute probably to prop up the defence against set-pieces. Little time to make an impact.

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